Israel, UAE's emerging ties have 3 legs: Diplomacy, business and culture

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, everything is moving quickly.

AN ISRAELI and a UAE model pose in Dubai in September. (photo credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI and a UAE model pose in Dubai in September.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates are rapidly increasing ties. UAE Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja has been holding meetings with top ministers throughout the Israeli government, and economic ties have increased in the wake of important technology and defense conferences in the Gulf.
Despite COVID restrictions, everything is moving quickly.
Danny Sebright, the president of the US-UAE Business Council, has followed Israel’s ties with the Gulf for years and is deeply knowledgeable about Israel, the US and the UAE.
“You need normalized relations, and immediately following that, without a moment’s breath, the business and trade and promotion of culture and better understanding [followed],” said Sebright.
The US-UAE Business Council is key to building commercial ties and increasing business opportunities between the US and the United Arab Emirates.
The council was formed in 2006 and 2007 to create a platform to promulgate reliable information about the business relationship in response to the widely inaccurate stories coming out at the time.
Sebright has seen the UAE go through a transformation economically and diplomatically.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post about his background and experience, he said: “We began as 30 companies, and now we are more than 200, and we have some of the leading US and Emirati brand names as verticals; the captains and titans of their respective verticals are all our members.” These include companies such as Emirates Air, Etihad and Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.
Sebright was an intelligence officer in the 1980s when Israel suffered the First Intifada. In his thirties in the 1990s he was part of Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace process team as a policy official providing support behind the scenes.
“I was in these peacemaking efforts behind the scenes all the way to the second Bush administration, the Iraq War. I always hoped and thought – and it was my lifelong ambition and dream – that something like this [the Abraham Accords] would happen.”
He said he hopes that peace could be made between Israel and the Gulf, either via the Saudi king’s peace plan put forward in the early 2000s or other ideas.
However, US missteps in Iraq and the arrival of the Arab Spring meant that it appeared it might take another generation for peace to come.
“I lost some hope that it would happen in my lifetime, but I worked closely with UAE since 2003-4-5, and if there was one country that was the catalyst for this, I knew that it would be the UAE,” he recalls.
Business already existed quietly between the UAE and Israel for quite some time, he said. “There was quiet defense, security and cyber cooperation going back some 20 years, quiet and low-key and carefully monitored and controlled.
“The Abraham Accords allowed all the business to come out in the open in other important areas to be encouraged and promoted by both sides and governments,” he said.
Sebright was involved in some of the recent developments and saw how important steps were taking place in 2020. He pointed to the op-ed by UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba that was published last year in Yediot Aharonot. This was an important signal last June, and two months later the Abraham Accords were announced.
“I can tell you from the very start, a key element of this from all three countries [the US, UAE and Israel], once you got passed the normalization of diplomatic relations, the next key element was business and trade, as well as cultural ties and better awareness and understandings of people in three countries,” he said.
He pointed to diplomacy, business and culture as the three legs or pillars of the new relations.
The only hiccup so far has been the COVID pandemic, which shut down Israel’s airports after some 130,000 Israelis went to Dubai last year.
WITH HIS decades of experience inside and out of government, Sebright looks back at his time with the US government in the embassy during the Gulf War in Israel and later as a policy director at the Pentagon, and assesses that UAE-Israel relations are today moving at “light speed.”
Next will come more travel and people-to-people relations, he assumes. That will be followed by “the logistics piece, connecting Israel into the Gulf with ports and airlines and cargo and commercial. That is quickly moving [forward]. Also energy. Israel brings innovative technology for climate change, managing resources and water use, and the UAE is interested in these technologies.”
This is important for the wider region and also for the US in the region.
The US, UAE and Israel relationship will also be built on innovation, entrepreneurship and investment in technology. Jewish Americans who have experience investing in the Gulf and Israel will also be important.
“Israel for many years was its own island in the Levant, and in many cases it is still a frontier country with high walls and borders. Those will begin breaking down slowly,” he said, pointing to the new relations with the UAE and Bahrain as part of the process.
That will mean plugging Israel into the healthcare, technology and other sectors in the Gulf that link to Asia and the region, with possible exponential growth in some sectors.
Sebright praises the UAE leadership for seeking to create a model and path in the region. This is one that puts a lot of importance on coexistence and embracing modernity and younger leadership.
UAE’s leadership realized it had to go down a new path and create a model politically and economically, and it is doing it with coexistence, an increase in women’s roles, and highlighting how it is embracing modernity; it was there with new younger leadership and accelerated trends that they realized they had to move quickly to implement.
“They have said to me their goal and objective is to create a model and set an example that others can follow if they so choose,” he noted about the UAE’s leadership.
Sebright thinks that there could be more peace deals in the future but that it could take time and be a complex process.
“What Saudi Arabia does is hugely important and critical, but the Saudis must come to this as they do in a different way and [with a] different timeline and different challenges in bringing more conservative parts of society along,” he said.
He also pointed to defense ties as an area that may grow. Israeli defense companies went to the IDEX defense exhibition for the first time publicly last month. Although travel restrictions were a hurdle, the symbol was important.
Sebright noted that US defense companies like Raytheon are working with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems on Iron Dome, and there is interest in air defense in the UAE.
“That three-way cooperation is only going to grow and expand, and there will be Israeli systems that the Emiratis [will] want to buy that we [in the US] don’t buy; but we have such a close relationship on defense and security... as long as there is conversation and no surprises we won’t have a problem,” he said.
What is important is that the countries benefit from the new opportunities and also have systems that are interoperable, because US military forces are based in the Gulf, and having everything work together more seamlessly is vital.
“This will all evolve as we work together to answer the common threats that we will face, and we will work this cooperation out as we go.”